Sohn: Chattanooga stood strong, and the president noticed

An FBI investigator investigates the scene of a shooting outside a Chattanooga military recruiting center on July 17, 2015
An FBI investigator investigates the scene of a shooting outside a Chattanooga military recruiting center on July 17, 2015

President Barack Obama invoked Chattanooga and our resilience to terrorism in his speech Tuesday after meeting with French President Franois Hollande.

The context was in talking about the American spirit and the role civilians here and abroad play in shoring up our security officials to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups. We help by not allowing fear to give terrorists a victory.

"Groups like ISIL cannot defeat us on the battlefield. So they try to terrorize us at home against soft targets, against civilians, against innocent people. Even as we're vigilant, we cannot and will not succumb to fear. Nor can we allow fear to divide us. That's how terrorists win. The good news is the Americans are resilient. We mourned the lives lost at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon and Chattanooga," the president said. Then he continued:

"But we did not waiver. Our communities have come together. We've gone to ball games, we've gone to concerts, we've gone shopping, and men and women who want to serve our countries continue to go to military offices. We're vigilant. We take precautions, but we go about our business. Americans will not be terrorized."

Chattanooga Strong. We knew it and know it. Now we've been honored with a presidential acknowledgment of it.

But it's also remarkable that we now have an acknowledgement - at the highest level - that the attacks on the military offices in Chattanooga were indeed connected to the larger web of international terror - homegrown or not.

The president's quite stirring remarks make it all the harder, then, to understand why just two weeks ago FBI Director James Comey still refused to make such a link and told reporters that the FBI continued to characterize 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez as a "violent homegrown extremist," rather than a terrorist.

Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a sailor in attacks on a military recruiting office and the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center here last July. He was born in Kuwait to Jordanian parents of Palestinian descent, but he grew up in Chattanooga and graduated from Red Bank High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Comey said the public may never know what motivated Abdulazeez, who some months before had gone to Jordan to visit family. During the attacks here, Abdulazeez was shot to death by police.

"We're still trying to make sure we understand Abdulazeez, his motivations and associations, in a really good way," Comey said. "Sometimes the way we investigate requires us to keep information secret. That's a good thing. We don't want to smear people."

Just hours after the attacks, U.S. Attorney Bill Killian called them collectively "an act of domestic terrorism." Moments later, the FBI began the process of walking that back - and making Killian walk it back.

Whatever the semantics involved in the terms "homegrown violent extremist," "domestic terrorism" or simply "mass-murder" - the fact remained that we and Chattanooga were slapped, critically wounded and left emotionally vulnerable. Our leaders termed it heartbroken.

How we coped was the broader message the president was making when he used Chattanooga as an example of determined resilience in the face of terror.

"I say all this because another part of being vigilant, another part of defeating terrorists like ISIL, is upholding the rights and freedoms that define our two great republics. That includes the freedom of religion. That includes equality before the law," he said, segueing into the furor of hate and fear-mongering being whipped up by those running for president in the Republican party.

While the fear-mongers are calling for America to turn its back on Syrian refugees also tortured by ISIS and to deport 11 million Hispanic immigrants, American military and security forces have slowly built coalitions (now much bolstered by the attacks in France, sadly) and conducted more than 8,125 strikes against ISIS targets in Syria.

"There have been times in our history, in moments of fear, when we have failed to uphold our highest ideals. And it has been to our lasting regret. We must uphold our ideals now. Each of us, all of us, must show that America is strengthened by people of every faith and every background," the president said. "What a powerful rebuke for the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children."

Terrorism is terrible. But the president is right: It only succeeds if we are willing partners.

Chattanooga chose not to be terrorism's partner. Chattanooga stood strong.

Upcoming Events